With the Autumn Internationals over in what seemed a blink of an eye, Cardiff and the opening night of the 6 Nations cannot come soon enough. For England, Wales, France, Australia and South Africa, the Autumn Series didn’t live up to expectations, especially for England who never really got going.
Ireland have emerged as the massive winners from November’s matches although perhaps we shouldn’t value their victories over a dreadfully weary South Africa and Australia quite so highly. Both sides looked shot this weekend and, having started their season last February, you can understand why. Neither has a squad the size of the All Blacks and so the majority of their best XV tend to play week in, week out.
Let’s now take a look at the 5 major talking points to come out of the autumn:
1. England Still Have No Clue What To Do In Midfield
England, and specifically Stuart Lancaster, started the autumn with no real clue of who to play in the centres and ended it with even less idea. In none of the four games did Lancaster pick a combination that could possibly work. Every Premiership club would pick a more balanced pairing that England managed to assemble. What was the funniest was watching Eastmond and Joseph play against Quins on Friday night before Twelvetrees and Barritt played for England the following day. Well at least the Bath fans were happy!
Manu Tuilagi will surely fit in at 13 but who plays 12? Personally, I’m not sure that Luther Burrell quite has the kicking and passing game to play 12 at international level and I’d argue Henry Slade deserves his chance. Going with the power of Tuilagi gives you the opportunity to play a real ball player alongside him. For me Eastmond or Slade must partner the Leicester bruiser in the 6 Nations.
2. Should England Just Play The Irish Way And Be Happy?
England have been criticised heavily this Autumn for not playing in a certain way, even when securing victory over Australia. What I fail to understand is why doesn’t Stuart Lancaster just come and out and say this is the way England will play.
England have one of the best packs in the world and now with a decent tactical kicker at fly-half, George Ford, they can suffocate teams just as Ireland do. Lets not beat around the bush, Ireland beat South Africa and Australia by scoring two well worked tries from kicks and by kicking every time they were in their half. It wasn’t hugely pretty but they won. That said Ireland’s back three of Kearney, Zebo and Bowe is a cut above England’s at the moment and provide a level of incision and experience to ensure what chances provided are gobbled up. If England put two huge lumps in the centres, Tuilagi and Sam Burgess for example, they would always get over the gain line would probably win 80% of games. Whether that route one stuff is nuanced enough to beat the very best in the World Cup remains to be seen however.
Either way, England have to decide their best strategy to win the World Cup. Lancaster needs to get real and understand that the 6 Nations in 2015 is literally a stepping stone, if England were to get a Grand Slam and then not get out the group in the RWC, what will the country remember?
3. Wales Finally Net A Big Fish
It has taken an awfully long time but Wales have finally done it, they have beaten a Southern Hemisphere side after 22 attempts. Not to take any of the credit away but the next time they play one of the Southern Hemisphere’s big three they may not quite be so lethargic. South Africa have played 10 internationals in the last three and half months and before that churned out a gruelling 5 month Super Rugby season.
But don’t tell that to Sam Warburton or Warren Gatland. The victory, if hardly a classic in terms of quality, was monumentally important. Wales now know they can get over the line against the best in the world and they now have Dan Biggar nailed on at 10 for the World Cup. The benefit they have compared to England is that they are very settled, their XV almost picks itself. Gatland now needs to concentrate on masterminding how to beat sides if running over people doesn’t work. The power game is great and has been brutally effective against the rest of Europe but it isn’t going to work every week against the likes of South Africa and New Zealand.
4. Will Dan Carter Play In The World Cup?
This might be slightly premature but in the past Dan Carter has swanned back into the New Zealand side from lengthy injuries like nothing has changed. This time however it may take slightly longer. He looked dreadfully rusty in his USA cameo and against Scotland again looked well short of the pace. Not even making the bench for the games against England or Wales was a sign of his form.
He now has a Super Rugby season to look forward to but with Cruden, Barrett and Slade in hot pursuit he won’t simply walk into the All Blacks World Cup squad. The fact that Barrett and Slade can both cover full-back means there is potentially space for all of them but some high class players will certainly miss out for the Kiwis.
5. Scottish Renaissance Or Finally Just A Decent Pitch?
Scotland scored just four tries in the entire 2014 Six Nations, a total they surpassed against Argentina in their opening match of the Autumn Series. They looked a completely different side in November, a side with the shackles off as they played with some real adventure and flair.
Scotland are never going to beat the best sides in the world playing negative, defence orientated rugby but by throwing the ball about a bit they could ruffle a few feathers. This also coincides nicely with the Scottish Rugby Board finally sorting out the pitch at Murrayfield. How an international team were expected to play on such a turgid cabbage patch was extraordinary and it sucked the life out of Scotland’s game. With three home games in next year’s 6 Nations, Scotland should be looking to finish outside the bottom 2.
Disagree with any of that? Let us know in the comments below old boy!